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Saturday, 20 May, 2000, 17:13 GMT 18:13 UK
Ethiopia's push north
Ethiopian advance
The Ethiopians are advancing confidently
By Peter Biles

The Ethiopians were brimming with confidence. Not since this war began two years ago, have they taken journalists so close to the frontlines. One of our hosts, the government's deputy spokesman, was wearing an orange baseball cap, adorned with the slogan "Our victory is certain".

As we drove slowly northwards along the dirt road that leads across the disputed area known as the Badme Triangle, it was less than clear how far we would actually be able to go.

So, it was with some surprise that we suddenly stopped to find an Ethiopian military helicopter in a field nearby, waiting to take us on the next stage of our journey.

Eritrean captives
Eritreans soldiers have suffered serious defeats

Within minutes, we were airborne, crossing the dry riverbed of the Mereb River which divides Ethiopia and Eritrea. We were in enemy territory, as far as Ethiopia is concerned.

The helicopter swept low over the arid, rocky hillsides, and there below us were the trenches - long snaking lines in the brown earth, stretching for mile after mile, broken only by small bunkers and dugouts.

But the trenches were utterly deserted. The Eritrean army had apparently abandoned their positions here on the western front less than 24 hours after the resumption of hostilities.

The only sign of life on the ground was a group of Ethiopian soldiers who looked up and waved as the helicopter passed overhead.

Trench warfare

People have frequently likened this conflict to the trench warfare of World War I.

But it is also strikingly reminiscent of the 30-year long independence war which the Eritrean People's Liberation Front - the EPLF - waged against the former Ethiopian dictator, Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, until the collapse of his regime almost exactly nine years ago.

Trench warfare certainly characterised the last years of that conflict, with the opposing armies often no more than a few metres apart.

North of the Mereb River, the Eritrean trenches are empty
But how, on this occasion, had the Ethiopians over-run the Eritrean defensive positions in a matter of hours?

By all accounts, they caught the Eritreans by surprise, coming around at night in a pincer movement from the west and the east, then attacking the Eritreans from behind, while at the same time, launching a frontal assault, apparently using everything at their disposal, including heavy artillery and helicopter gunships.

The Eritrean army may have fled, but as we circled again and again to get a better view of the barren landscape below, we were ever mindful of the fact that Eritrea still has an air force.

Our Russian-built helicopter would be no match for a MiG fighter jet.

Border control

We returned to Ethiopian territory, but later in the afternoon, we were off again, this time, by road.

The Ethiopians were desperate to show us everything, as clear a sign as any perhaps, that they had the Eritreans on the run.

As we crossed the border to enter Eritrea, it was obvious that the Ethiopian forces had established control of this area at least, although they were still busy scouring the roadsides for landmines, tying red tape to bushes as markers.

A yellow bus with Eritrean registration plates was being driven towards Ethiopia. It had been commandeered by the Ethiopians. Nearby, an Eritrean arms depot had been discovered.

Ethiopian soldiers were busy seizing what had been left behind, loading huge tank shells on to the back of a truck. Many of the shells bore markings in the Cyrillic alphabet, suggesting that they had originated somewhere in the former Soviet Union.

The local commander said the shells would be taken to the new frontline, further north.

Ethiopian celebrations

It seemed to make a mockery of the idea that a UN arms embargo against Ethiopia and Eritrea might make any difference, for these are currently two of the most highly militarised countries in the Horn of Africa, a region renowned for political instability and conflict.

And both Ethiopia and Eritrea have had ample time to equip themselves with all they need over the past two years since this war first began.

On the flatter ground behind the trenches, we came across the signs of battle. A dozen or so corpses lay rotting across a wide area.

They were the bodies of Eritrean soldiers.

Many have described this as a stupid, pointless war. To have died here, miles from anywhere, seemed only to reinforce that belief.

But in the nearby Eritrean town of Shembako, the Ethiopians were not subscribing to that view. Their soldiers were moving into the destroyed town in a mood of celebration, reinforcing and all the time pushing deeper into Eritrea, not just content with recapturing disputed territory.


The Ethiopian justification for this military offensive is quite clear.

Ethiopia believes Eritrea was the original aggressor two years ago. It calls Eritrea "a rogue state that follows the rule of the jungle" and refers to her leaders as "the street gangsters of Asmara".

Eritrean soldiers
Eritrean soldiers on the front line have been taken captive
Ethiopian patience finally snapped. The government in Addis Ababa decided that it could no longer bear the burden of being in a permanent state of conflict.

It would have to crush the Eritrean army once and for all, and in the shortest time possible. Hence, the rapid advances that the Ethiopian forces have made into Eritrea.

They say they have no designs on Eritrean sovereign territory. If they had, Ethiopia would not have allowed Eritrea to become independent seven years ago.

But it is hard to see what the final outcome will be. If the Eritrean army is destroyed, where will that leave the country's political leadership, the plucky guerrilla fighters who - for three decades - took on the biggest army in Africa and won, against all the odds?

Eritrea's government has already suffered humiliation by having to withdraw its forces from areas in the west of the country.

Once again, it seems like a return to the old days when towns frequently changed hands in the ebb and flow of battle.


The tragedy is that up until a couple of years ago, Ethiopia and Eritrea were being championed by the West as models for the rest of Africa to follow. The belief was they had both turned their backs on conflict forever.

As we headed back into Ethiopia, making for the staging post of Inda Selase, we passed thousands of Ethiopian soldiers aboard open trucks, being driven towards Eritrea.

They cheered, chanted and waved their AK47s in the air.

Unlike the final days of the defeated Mengistu regime, Ethiopia's armed forces were - on this occasion - happy to be photographed and filmed.

Like our government minder, they seemed convinced that victory was assured. But history tells us that very little is ever certain in this corner of Africa.

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See also:

20 May 00 | Africa
US diplomats leave Eritrea
19 May 00 | Africa
Victory on the back of a donkey
17 May 00 | Media reports
War of words in the Horn
16 May 00 | Battle in the Horn
Eritrea and Ethiopia at war
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